14. Love, Family, and Society

14. Love, Family, and Society
Western society is going pathological; in many respects it is already quite sick. It is not I who make this drastic diagnosis, but Pope John Paul II. In his Letter to Families of 1994, he did not hesitate to say: "our society... from various points of view, is a society which is sick, and is creating profound distortions in man" (no. 20). Is such a diagnosis exaggerated? I do not think so. Is it pessimistic? Again I would say No, for it is given by a doctor firmly convinced that the patient is made for good health and has the ability to recover, and who himself knows and dispenses the right medicine to bring about the cure.
It is a stringent and disturbing diagnosis, certainly, but it is also encouraging. It says that something is wrong, seriously wrong; but shows how it can be put right. The Pope's optimism comes from his conviction and repeated insistence that man is meant for a "civilization of love" (no. 13), while his diagnosis derives from the fact that our western civilization seems to be one not of love but rather, as he puts it, "a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of 'things' and not of 'persons', a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used" [108].
The consequences of a civilization of use, of a consumer-society, are clear. When everything (which includes everyone) becomes an object of use, once the object is no longer found to be useful, the practical thing is to discard it and if it won't go away, to find ways of getting rid of it. A civilization of use can lead to a "civilization of dumping", of elimination of all that is considered unwanted (an unborn child, for instance). And when the unwanted thing or person cannot be easily eliminated, it can lead to a "civilization" of hatred [109].
It is love in particular which is in a critical state of pathology today. Not God's love - for it is never in crisis - , but our love, which has to be the very dynamism of our being and yet can be choked out of us and killed by self-seeking. In a sense, the West is in danger of death through heart-failure: love-failure. This is the sickness gripping Western societies, because true human health can only be present in the person who is able to love; and we are forgetting how to love. We must say it once again: there is the only really important thing in life - to learn to love.
The Bible puts before us, in all their starkness, the ultimate choices. "I have set before you good and evil... life and death; therefore choose" (Dt 30:19-20). This is the marvel and the burden of our existence, which appears both exciting and fearful, constantly marked by alternatives and choices. Perhaps as one gets older the possibilities may seem to grow less in number, though certainly not less in importance. In the end, they are reduced to just two: Heaven or Hell. These are the definitive alternatives, eternal love or eternal hatred. When all is said and done, life is nothing else than a preparation for those ultimate possibilities: to love or to be no longer able to love, to give or to be no longer able to give, to open one's self out towards others or to remain shrunk within self and closed off from everyone and everything else.
Practical selfishness and an impoverished understanding of life have always been the "normal" obstacles to love, arising within us and between us. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, love has always found many natural supports - settings, environments, institutions - for its development. The new pathology we are faced with in our society is that these natural institutions themselves, of which marriage and family life are the chief, are ailing and in danger of dying or of being put to death.
Let us go back to the start of Creation. In calling man into existence, God's plan was that he should be conceived in love and grow in love; that his experience of life should be matured in a particular school of love, which is the family, constituted by the marital union of man and woman. Through marriage and the family God wishes to send love, and with it goodness, into the world. Wherever love is made present, good acquires that strength of God which conquers the world. God instituted the family to be the first place - the normal "locus" - where love is naturally learned and from which it can spread out to others. It against on this background that John Paul II wrote his Letter to Families. His particular concern is that the very notion and reality of the family are being disfigured or lost today. In consequence of man's lack of self-knowledge [110], "the family too remains an unknown reality" (19). He wishes to present the "truth about the family" (no. 18); and asks Christians to understand and echo it.
Family quality and family experience are vital if we are to have healthy individuals and a healthy society where, despite the presence of evil, good is even more strongly present. Whether life for each individual and for society turns out to be good or bad, positive or negative, rich in love or dominated by the experience of selfishness, depends fundamentally on the family. In his Letter, the Pope teaches: "the family is placed at the centre of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good... Every family unit needs to make these forces their own so that... the family be strong with the strength of God" (no. 23) [111].
Let us turn our eyes briefly to some of the ways in which marriage and the family are meant to be schools of life and love, remembering that in the school of the family, as in any school, subjects are not learned unless they are taught, the best teacher being always (and perhaps only) the one who believes in and lives what he or she teaches.
The family, school of love for the children
A first point to bear in mind here is that children do not spontaneously fall in love with their parents or with their brothers or sisters. They have to learn to love. Falling in love is an adult or adolescent phenomenon, not one of childhood. It is not spontaneously but in response to the dedication, patience, and sacrifice of others, that children learn to love them.
If children normally do learn to love, it is fundamentally because they have experienced being loved within the natural setting of the family: by their parents in the first place, and perhaps also by their older brothers and sisters. St. Thomas teaches that nothing moves a person to love so much as to know oneself loved (see Summa theologiae, I-II, 26, art. 2). Children who are loved by their parents will learn to love in return. The persevering dedication of their parents to them - also with the "demands" of love - will gradually teach them that love means giving. And, under their parents' constant love and guidance, they too will learn to love each other. Here one sees the colossal privilege of the task of parents. Not only to give life, but also to teach love.
Nothing is more destructive to happiness than the loss of faith in love. It is to let oneself be lured on to the road to Hell to permit doubts about the presence or possibility of love in one's life, thinking that one can neither give love nor receive it: I am too selfish to love others, or others are too selfish to love me. Today the temptation (or the beginning of the temptation) is there for many people, and it is strong. I love no one. No one loves me. I cannot find anyone to love; therefore others are not lovable. No one loves me; therefore I am not lovable. Many people spend years trying to fight off such temptations. Those who do not succeed can end in suicide.
The best natural safeguard against these ultimate temptations is the unique experience of living and growing in a family - that place where no one is unloved, not even the most unlovable. Parents tend to love each of their children, even - and especially - the worst. Then the children learn that there is a love which is not conditioned on merit and is not withdrawn because of defects. Children who have grown up in a family like that and so have experienced being unconditionally loved, are in a good position to measure up to the challenge of love, inside and outside the family. The lessons - on both the natural and the supernatural level - are there in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Without some experience of a father's or, even more especially, of a mother's love, it is difficult to realize the unconditional nature of the love God has for each one of us: "Can a woman forget the child of her womb? And even if she could forget, yet I will not forget you" (Is 49:15).
If parents are generous in loving their children, brothers and sisters gradually learn to be generous among themselves, to understand, to forgive, to make up. Then the family really becomes, as John Paul II says, "the first school of how to be human" [112]: a school that prepares the children for life, in a special way for modern life, where people are running out of patience with one another, where negative judgments are rife, where other person's defects become an obsession and forgiveness a rarity, where meanness and intolerance seem to be gaining acceptance as codes of social behavior. If we said above that the privileged task of parents is to teach love as well as to give life, we can add without exaggeration that their mission goes even farther; it is to save love - through a work of incarnation that humanizes love for their children, so that it is not a mere word for them but a reality truly present in their daily lives. It is then that children begin to respond, and can be taught and led to respond. After all, even though parents may expect or require obedience and respect of their children, these will be given poorly, or not at all, if not given in response to generous love.
Generosity draws people together in unity and peace. Calculation and meanness produce division and hostility. It all begins in the family. "In healthy family life", says Pope Benedict XVI, "we experience some of the fundamental elements of peace: justice and love between brothers and sisters, the role of authority expressed by parents, loving concern for the members who are weaker because of youth, sickness or old age, mutual help in the necessities of life, readiness to accept others and, if necessary, to forgive them" (Message for the World Day of Peace (2008), no. 3).
If so many families today are no longer the school of love they were meant to be, it is almost always because husband and wife, the founders of each family, have not built well from their own initial love. Families do not always become schools of love, and could even degenerate into schools of selfishness. They are as parents make them. Parents will not give unconditioned love to their children unless they have been trying to give it to each other.
The family, school of love for the spouses
It is in relation to their children that parents ought most clearly to see that love is a challenge calling for generosity and patience. The living-out of this concern for their children should reconfirm them in their own experience that falling in love is easy, whereas standing and growing in love are not.
We have suggested that children do not spontaneously "fall in love" with their parents. But, of course, the children would not normally be there at all if the parents had not originally fallen in love with each other. There is a lot of spontaneity to this romantic process of "falling in love" which usually precedes and inspires the decision of a man and a woman to marry. The process is highly sentimental and filled with feeling, tending to idealize the other person and seeing few defects in him or her - for, as is often said, "love is blind". Peculiarly, this seems to be the design of nature: that "romance", strong in feeling and weak in perception, should lead people to want to bind themselves together in marriage.
However, conjugal love cannot depend only on romance or on feelings. In his Letter, John Paul II says, "Love is true when it creates the good of persons and of communities; it creates that good and gives it to others"... "Love is demanding... Nowadays people need to rediscover this demanding love, for it is the truly firm foundation of the family" [113].
Human love in marriage, which promises so much happiness, will therefore only reach fulfilment if it is worked at. John Paul II says that "this fulfilment represents both a task and a challenge. The task involves the spouses in living out their original covenant" (no. 7), in being faithful to the mutual love they have pledged. This already poses a challenge to each of them with regard to the other. So much depends on how well Christian spouses understand this challenge, and how generously they respond to it.
In his Letter John Paul II speaks of "the dangers faced by love", and he adds: "Here one thinks first of all of selfishness..." (no. 14). Individual selfishness is the enemy of love; selfishness fostered by our worst defect which is pride. Selfishness and pride have to be fought; if they are not, they destroy love and unity and happiness; and place the soul in eternal danger. Humility is one of the essential weapons for the fight: the humility of constantly asking pardon of God for one's personal sins; and in married life, the humility especially of asking one's partner for forgiveness - even if one thinks him or her mainly to blame.
"Husbands and wives, love one another", Scripture says (see Eph 5:21-33). It is a command: each of you must be more concerned to give to your spouse, than to receive from him or her. Such constant self-giving is the way of Christ, who gave himself on the Cross - for each of us, despite our little worth. It is also, paradoxically, the way of happiness.
St. Josemaría too would help spouses realize what this implies, using simple but keen psychology. Talking with a married couple he would often ask, perhaps beginning with the wife, "Do you love your husband?" "Of course", she would reply. "Do you love him very much?" "Very much!" "Do you love him with his defects...?" If there were a moment's hesitation at this, he would add: "because if you don't, you don't love him". Then he would ask the same of the husband.
It is so clear. If, when marrying, one is not prepared to love the other person with his or her defects, it is not, we repeat, a real person whom one wants to marry. To learn to love someone with defects is of the essence of true love and loyalty, and is always a major task for spouses. Mutual respect and acceptance - respect of each for the other, defects and all - is the only attitude that holds together a couple, a family, a society.
Covenant, communion, children
John Paul speaks of another challenge, within the covenant of married love, that is posed to both spouses together. It regards the possible fruit of their love. "The children born to them - and here is the challenge - should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the conjugal communion of the father and mother". He adds: "When this does not occur, we need to ask if the selfishness which lurks even in the love of man and woman as a result of the human inclination to evil is not stronger than this love" (Letter, no. 7).
Later on, he develops this, in the sense that when love does not face up to the natural challenges that accompany it, it can find itself in danger. As the first among "the dangers faced by love", he again mentions selfishness and adds: "Here one thinks... not only of the selfishness of individuals, but also of couples..." (14). So he insists on the danger posed to married love not just by reciprocal selfishness in the relation between husband and wife, but by the shared selfishness of both in regard to their children: the danger of a couple being calculating in their attitude towards them. Children are properly the fruit of a couple's love; yet it is a poor love that calculates. Calculated giving, especially in giving life, seldom expresses - or strengthens - true love. Truer love tends to be generous, and generosity tries to avoid thinking in terms of calculation.
Parents with a large family may have a busy time trying to create peace between their sons and daughters; but they will have a fuller human experience than parents who find themselves in the increasingly difficult situation of trying to keep peace between themselves and an only child. Even if these latter parents manage to achieve some sort of peace, it is not likely to be a loving and worthwhile accord based on mutual sacrifice, but a "botherless" peace, bought at the cost of yielding to the child's whims, and not likely to last or to induce respect.
St. Josemaría echoes Pope John Paul's point: "Selfishness, in any of its forms, is opposed to that love for God which ought to rule our lives. This is a fundamental point that must be borne in mind, with regard to marriage and to the size of a family" (Conversations, no. 93). Parenthood was something Josemaría spoke of with enthusiasm, seeing in it a divinely given grace and privilege - especially in the case of women. In Brazil in 1974, he said to a large group of married persons: "motherhood is something holy and joyful, good and noble, blessed and beloved. Mothers: congratulations!" [114] He would constantly repeat that "motherhood makes a woman beautiful".
Vocation to sanctity
So far we have been speaking of married and family love on a natural plane: of the beauty of the ideal it proposes and the challenge of the obstacles it meets. We have taken up Pope John Paul II's words on the enemies to love - selfishness above all - and considered too the simple, optimistic, and penetrating psychology of St. Josemaría Escrivá as to how such difficulties can be tackled and overcome. All that we have noted can apply to any marriage. But of course neither John Paul II nor Josemaría presents marriage as a purely natural ideal; nor do they suggest that its challenges and its beauty can be achieved with natural forces alone. John Paul II, like all his predecessors, emphasizes that marriage for Christians is a sacrament; and that husband and wife must rely on sacramental grace in order to live up to their love and commitment as spouses and parents (see Letter, nos. 15, 16).
In St. Josemaría's view of Christian marriage we find the same insistence on its sacramental character. But another and striking point of emphasis constantly appears. Marriage is presented as raised not merely to the level of a sacrament, a privileged means of grace, but to that of a vocation - a personal call to a way of life essentially aimed at holiness.
"These world crises are crises of saints" (The Way, no. 301), he wrote in the 1930s. Only the Saints are strong with the "strength of God". The life of the founder of Opus Dei was devoted to "opening up the divine paths of the earth" (to use a phrase often on his lips), to convincing ordinary people everywhere that their secular jobs and occupations are ways to God and ways of God: that God is to be found not only at the end of the road, but at every step of these mundane ways, which therefore should be seen in themselves as a means for finding him and loving him.
Sanctity - the great formula to solve the real crises of the world! For many people, the most revolutionary aspect of the message of the founder of Opus Dei is how he applied this specifically to marriage, presenting it not only as a sacrament, but above all as a vocation; communicating to millions of couples the conviction that God calls them to marriage, and in doing so calls them to holiness; that they have the great mission to make their conjugal love and parental love expressions and ways of loving God. They can love God greatly, precisely through loving each other and their children greatly. Time and again young and not so young people have paused at length over that other point at the start of The Way: "You laugh because I tell you that you have a 'vocation for marriage'? Well, you have just that: a vocation" (no. 27).
Holy families are the special need of our times. They can be formed only by couples who are trying to be saints. Only in such families will good be stronger than evil and able to overcome it. Only from such families will that good spread which can save the world.
Among the saints, Josemaría Escrivá was undoubtedly the one who most helped married persons to look on their marriage as a way of dedication to God and as a radical vocation to sanctity. "For almost forty years", he wrote in 1968, "I have been preaching the vocational sense of marriage. So often when talking to men and women who thought that a life of dedication to God and a noble clean human love were incompatible, I have seen their eyes light up as they heard me say that marriage is a divine way on earth!" (Conversations, 91).
Marriage - a divine way! It is certainly a daring statement! Seldom if ever in the history of the Church has not only the constitutional goodness of matrimony, but its full sense as a vocation to sanctity, been so proclaimed.
For St. Josemaría, marriage was to be looked on as a personal calling from God to a man or woman so that, as spouse and parent, he or she would cooperate with him in a divine task; to achieve personal holiness, to help their spouse to be a saint, and to work together for the happiness and sanctification of their family. The true "beauty of the family", he taught, must be seen as deriving from "the supernatural task involved in the founding of a home, the fruit of sanctification which is hidden in conjugal duties" [115].
He insisted that love for God, in the case of husband and wife, is inseparable from their loving one another, and would help them realize what this principle implied. One love is a means to the other. Growth in one love is not possible without growth in the other. Married people, he repeated, "have been called by God to come to divine love also by means of human love" (Conversations, 93).
"Married couples have a grace of state - the grace of the sacrament - to live all of the human and Christian virtues which must characterize life lived close together: understanding, good humour, patience, the readiness to forgive, tactfulness in mutual dealings. The important thing is not to give up the effort to live those small virtues, or let nerves or pride or personal manias get the better of them. For that, husband and wife need to grow in interior life, and to learn from the Holy Family to put great care into living the virtues characteristic of a Christian home; doing so out of a human and a supernatural motive at one and the same time. And, I repeat, they will not lack God's grace" (ib. 108). There is great wisdom and power in the spirituality underlying this passage. The principle that "grace builds on nature" is specially true of the sacramental graces, including the graces proper to the state of matrimony. If these graces are relied on, they will help to activate all of the genuine expressions of true conjugal and family love.
Speaking to a group of husbands, St. Josemaría told them: "The sacrament of matrimony provides spiritual graces, help from Heaven, so that husband and wife can be happy and bring children into the world... It is good and holy that you express your love for one another. I bless you, and I bless that love of yours, as I bless the love of my parents. Try to be happy in marriage. If you are not happy, it is because you have not made up your minds to be so. God gives you the means... Change, if you have to change. Love your wives. Respect them. Devote to your children all the time they need" [116].
A recurring theme in his preaching is that happiness - on the human level too - is the consequence of dedication and self-forgetfulness. In one of his books, he writes: "Only whoever forgets himself, and gives himself to God and to others - also in marriage - can be happy on earth, with a happiness that prepares and anticipates that of Heaven" [117]. Elsewhere he insists, "Marriage demands a lot of sacrifice; but what peace and what consolation it provides. And if that is not the way it works, then they are poor spouses who have come together" [118].
The problem with our modern world is that it wants to be happy by getting, not by giving; and that runs counter to the most basic rules of human living. In the end we cannot and should not want to ignore the fact that happiness - also the happiness that marriage promises - is not possible without generosity and sacrifice. St. Josemaría used often to say that happiness has its roots in the shape of a Cross (see The Forge, no. 28). It is the rule and apparent paradox of the gospel: only by "losing" and giving ourselves - the essence of love - can we begin to find our selves and, even more than ourselves, the happiness we are made for.
No preaching or teaching on marriage will tend to renew married life if it does not reflect this basic truth. As the Catechism says: "It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to 'receive' the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian matrimony is a fruit of Christ's Cross, the source of all Christian life" (1615).
Marriage, institution - and vocation!
We spoke in one of our first chapters of the close link between the ends of marriage - where human and divine love meet and work hand in hand. St. Josemaría's understanding of the vital connection between these ends appears in the following passages, where he contemplates them not just in an institutional but in a vocational light.
"It is important that the spouses acquire a clear sense of the dignity of their vocation, that they realize they have been called by God to come to divine love also by means of human love; that they have been chosen from eternity to cooperate with the creative power of God in the procreation and afterwards in the education of children; that God asks them to bear witness to all the Christian virtues in the whole of their home and family life" (Conversations, 93).
When referring to the unbreakable nature of the marriage bond, Josemaría always went to the heart of the matter, presenting this property of every true marriage as something corresponding to the aspirations of human love and to the quest for happiness. "The indissolubility of matrimony is not a whim of the Church, nor even a simple ecclesiastical law. It is of natural and divine law, and it responds perfectly to our human nature and to the supernatural order of grace. That is why, in the immense majority of cases, it is an indispensable condition of happiness for the spouses, and of security, also spiritual security, for the children" (ibid., 97). For him, indissolubility meant the permanence of a bond of love: of a strong and voluntary love, which has to be cared for so that it not only survives the passage of the years but grows better, becoming stronger and firmer. "The love of Christian spouses is like wine, which improves with the years and increases in value... It is a splendid treasure, that God has wished to grant to you. Look after it well. Do not throw it away! Preserve it!" [119].
Spouses "have been called by God"... have been chosen from eternity...": nothing can be more personal than such a divine vocation. And in the purpose St. Josemaría assigns to this vocation - "to come to divine love also by means of human love" - he surely expresses the essential content of the bonum coniugum; the "good of the spouses". To know the goodness of God, to open oneself to that goodness, to fit oneself for its possession and eternal enjoyment in Heaven: upon this rest the ultimate destiny and "good" of each person. The good of the spouses is found in that combining and developing of all of husband's and wife's capacity for love, both human and divine. Human love coming from and leading to divine love; spousal love that becomes parental love that becomes family love; good spreading in the family and from the family, with all the power of God; with the strength that saves the world.
Love can be killed by law - by bad laws, of which we have many today. It cannot be brought back to life by law, not even by good laws, although good laws are necessary and can certainly help. It is not in Parliaments, nor in Supreme Courts, nor in United Nations Conferences that love can be revived, but only in families.
What is at stake
In his Letter to Families, John Paul II does not pass over the fact that Christ's message on marriage and the family may appear hard from a merely human point of view, above all if it is that of an individualist. But he emphasizes that this message is both beautiful and worthwhile, as well as of the greatest importance to the world around us. He recalls that even the Apostles had a first reaction of surprise and even fear at Our Lord's teaching about the indissoluble nature of the marriage bond (see Mt 19:10); but that "overcoming their initial fears even about marriage and the family, they grew in courage. They came to understand that marriage and family are a true vocation which comes from God himself and is an apostolate: the apostolate of the laity. Families are meant to contribute to the transformation of the earth and the renewal of the world, of creation and of all humanity" (Letter, no. 18).
Parents: each of you has to learn to put his or her own small personal concerns into the background; and together - in your glorious "family project" - , you have to learn to overcome your own small mutual differences, to forgive and to forget them. You have to raise your hearts - each one of you individually, and both together - to what God is proposing to you; to what society, without knowing, needs from you; and to what your children, perhaps also without fully realizing it, have the right to expect from you.
Yes, there are difficulties, for each of us suffers from the consequences of Original Sin. We can even say that the family itself suffers from the Fall. It can be, it should be, a great school of love; but it can also be a school where love is learned poorly - almost always because it is taught poorly. In the worst of cases, the family can even be a school where the opposite of love is learned, because the opposite of love is taught. Instead of being a school of love and generosity, it can become a school of calculation and selfishness. It will be as the parents make it. Here is the greatness of the challenge, mission, and ideal placed before christian parents today.
If you dwell on the beauty of your vocation and the nobility and importance of your mission, its difficulties seem much less. And above all, as John Paul repeats, you will have God's help: "Do not be afraid of the risks! God's strength is always far more powerful than your difficulties! Immeasurably greater than the evil at work in the world is the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation... Much more influential than the corruption present in the world is the divine power of the Sacrament of Confirmation... And incomparably greater than all is the power of the Eucharist" (Letter, no. 18). Further, he insists that married couples have "the 'grace of state' which follows from the Sacrament of Matrimony" (no. 16). Those couples who trust in that - only those who trust in that - can succeed. "Life according to the Gospel... is beyond man's abilities, [and is] possible only as the result of a gift of God" (Veritatis splendor, 23). Look then for God's gifts in prayer and in the Sacraments; and you will find all the strength you need.
The foundations of humanity are at stake today. On Good Friday 1994, John Paul II said that without Christ and without the Cross of Christ, man "destroys himself". Three days later, on Easter Sunday, he did not hesitate to affirm that "the family is the principal source of humanity". A strong warning, in the context of the Cross, in one assertion; and a strong affirmation of hope, in the context of the Resurrection, in the other.